08 July 2019, by: Quintin van Jaarsveld

CRUSADERS PUT ON FINALS MASTERCLASS

The Crusaders put on a masterclass in finals rugby against the Jaguares in Christchurch on Saturday to clinch their 10th Super Rugby title, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.

The Final: Crusaders v Jaguares

Like the steam that permeated from the players on the cold Christchurch night, both the Crusaders and Jaguares rose to the occasion in Saturday’s Super Rugby final. Uncompromising, intense and hard-hitting, the decider was a song of ice and fire, the experienced Crusaders cool, calm and collected, and the fired-up first-time finalists from Buenos Aires bringing the fight to the favourites.

The high error count, a consequence of the dewy conditions, detracted from the decider somewhat, but it was a compelling contest for the most part. Ultimately, the mean machine marched on, as expected, with the classy Crusaders winning comfortably – 19-3 – in the end, while the game Jaguares were left with an overwhelming feeling of what could have been.

Finals rugby is a different beast to round-robin action, its high-stakes, do-or-die nature ramping up the pressure tenfold, and the ‘Saders once again showed they are masters at clearing the final hurdle. Like so many finals in the past, Saturday’s showdown came down to which team made the most of their opportunities. This is where the ‘Saders shone brightest.

Unrivalled – with this their 14th appearance in the final, more than twice as many as the next-best Brumbies’ six, and undefeated in 22 prior play-off games – the Crusaders used all of that experience expertly to foil the visitors.

In one brilliant, beautiful sequence, the ‘Saders delivered a hammer blow, Matt Todd – who had an outstanding outing – turning the ball over at the breakdown, Kieran Read summing up the situation in the blink of an eye, feeding Sam Whitelock on the blindside, the skipper linking up with Codie Taylor on his inside and the hooker finishing off in contact in the 26th minute.

The Jaguares, conversely, squandered two golden opportunities. In the first instance, Matias Moroni somehow failed to dot down in the 36th minute after being put into a gap by an outrageous offload from Man of the Match Pablo Matera. David Havili deserves credit for making the spot tackle in the No.15 jersey, so to scrumhalf Bryn Hall for his sweeping assisting hit, however, the Jaguares winger should’ve scored.

Similarly, the visitors should’ve capitalised in the 43rd minute when Matera again linked up with Moroni, who chipped over Havili’s head, gathered and offloaded to Matias Orlando, who couldn’t hang on. There was a measure of misfortune in a third try-scoring chance when a clever grubber in goal to an unmarked Moroni rolled dead just before he could dot down in the 68th minute. These were all key moments that could’ve been the difference between delight and despair.

What’s more, the impressive Hall displayed high-level rugby IQ with a clever break from a scrum on the stroke of half-time, catching the Argentinians – who’d anticipated him kicking the ball into touch to end the half – unawares and leading to a penalty, which Richie Mo’unga slotted to give the ‘Saders some breathing room at 10-3 going into the second stanza.

It was in the third quarter where the Crusaders took control of the contest. This is where they truly flexed their finals muscles, grinding the visitors down with relentless pressure and crucially taking the points when they were on offer, with Mo’unga slotting penalties in the 54th and 58th minute respectively to take the game away from the Argentinians. From there, they closed the game out with dead-eye Mo’unga hitting the final nail in the coffin with an excellent long-range penalty in the 74th minute.

For their part, the Jaguares will rue the missed opportunities and aimless kicking that gifted the Crusaders momentum-building ball. Overall, though, they did themselves justice in their first-ever final. They survived a baptism of fire, holding off the hosts – who had set up camp in the visitors’ 22 with a whopping 96% territory in the first eight minutes – and fired back with the first break and points of the game in the 15th minute.

They managed to take the mighty hosts out of their element in the first half with great line speed and ferocious defence, a feat in and of itself, but simply couldn’t breach their line. Whereas the Jaguares disrupted the Crusaders in the set pieces in the first 40, the Crusaders countered in contact. Their tackle technique was spot on, targeting the ball and often doubling up to force maul turnovers, and they proved once again that the defence wins championships cliché holds true.

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